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Small but Forceful Coalition Works to
Counter U.S. War on Drugs

Christopher Wren
The New York Times

January 2, 2000

When voters in Maine went to the polls in November and endorsed the use of marijuana as a medicine, it was more than a victory for cancer patients and others who say marijuana will help relieve their pain.

For a small coalition of libertarians, liberals, humanitarians and
hedonists, the vote was another step forward in a low-profile but sophisticated crusade to end the nation's criminal laws against marijuana and other psychoactive drugs.

Using polls, focus groups and advertising, the coalition has
selected and promoted causes that might arouse sympathy among Americans, like giving clean syringes to heroin users to prevent the spread of AIDS, or softening tough penalties for drug use. The most successful has been medicinal marijuana, which has been endorsed by the District of Columbia and seven states.

What brought together the disparate elements of the coalition,
however, is a far broader cause: changing the critical way that
Americans think about drugs. Proponents say they want to end a war on drugs that has packed prisons, offered addicts little
treatment and contributed to the spread of AIDS. Some want to go further and drop criminal penalties for personal drug use, or even make drugs legal.

The term they have carefully crafted for their goal is "harm
reduction": reducing the harm caused by those people who cannot or will not stop using drugs.

"We accept drugs are here to stay," said Ethan A. Nadelmann,
director of the Lindesmith Center, a drug policy center set up in
New York with money donated by the billionaire George Soros.
"There never has been a drug-free society," Mr. Nadelmann said. "We must learn how to live with drugs so they cause the least possible harm and the best possible good."

Critics say the agenda is more ominous: the legalization of marijuana and other drugs. At a Congressional hearing in June,
the White House director of national drug policy, Gen. Barry R.
McCaffrey, warned of "a carefully camouflaged, well-funded,
tightly knit core of people whose goal is to legalize drug use in the United States."

Sue Rusche, director of Families in Action, a coalition in Atlanta working to help parents prevent children from using drugs, accused Mr. Nadelmann and his supporters of systematically distorting the picture of what drugs do.

"Yes, we're concerned about children, but we're concerned about everybody," said Ms. Rusche, who likened Mr. Nadelmann to the tobacco industry. "He denies that drugs have the capacity to hurt people, and takes no responsibility for the consequences."

Mr. Nadelmann describes his position differently. "Drugs are not
bad," he said. "Drugs are good, bad or indifferent, depending on
how you use them."

The movement's supporters range beyond the Lindesmith Center and other efforts financed by Mr. Soros. Supporters include marijuana-smokers represented by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or Norml, libertarians who argue that personal drug use is nobody else's business, and old-fashioned liberals who castigate the government's campaign against drugs as worse than the problem.

"The core is the people who to my mind get it, the people who
connect the dots," Mr. Nadelmann said. "We believe that the war on drugs is a fundamental evil in our society."

The crusade to make drugs socially respectable has no precedent in the United States, said Dr. David F. Musto, a medical historian at the Yale School of Medicine and the author of "The American Disease: Origins of Narcotics Control" ( Oxford University Press).

"You have these groups funded by wealthy individuals that are a
constant critic of drug policy, and these groups use very sophisticated marketing techniques," he said.

Surveys show that most Americans still oppose making illicit
drugs legal. While voters have been tolerant of letting ill people
smoke marijuana, a Gallup poll this year reported that 69 percent of respondents opposed making marijuana legal for everyone.

Mark A. R. Kleiman, a professor of public policy at the University
of California at Los Angeles, said, "When you look at all these
medical marijuana initiatives, they pass by big margins, but the
governors and legislators go the other way."

Because constituents expect their politicians to be hard-nosed,
Professor Kleiman said, "a legislator who votes for medical
marijuana could lose votes from people who voted for medical

Mr. Nadelmann said he commissioned a poll to learn whether
voters would support personal cultivation of marijuana; 65
percent of those sampled thought that growing marijuana should remain a crime.

The result of this research into public attitudes has been the
deliberately vague idea of harm reduction. By casting the issue in friendlier terms that resonate across the political spectrum,
crusaders like Mr. Nadelmann say, they hope to induce Americans to tolerate, if not embrace, the elimination of criminal penalties against marijuana -- and as a few see it, the eventual legalization of all psychoactive drugs.

Critics call the medicinal marijuana issue a stalking-horse for drug legalization. "My guess is the real agenda is to promulgate
marijuana as a benign substance outside the boundaries of
conventional medicine," General McCaffrey said.

Mr. Nadelmann did not contradict him. "Will it help lead toward
marijuana legalization?" he said. "I hope so." But he said that reports of his support for harder drugs have quoted him out of

Mr. Nadelmann has advised the campaign putting medicinal
marijuana on state ballots, which is spearheaded by a group
calling itself Americans for Medical Rights, with no mention of
marijuana. The campaign's director, Bill Zimmerman, explained,
"You pick the name with a view toward winning support for the
organization." Not all critics of government drug policy want to
make illicit drugs legal.

Some assert that prohibition has not stopped drug use. Others say that money would be better spent treating addicts who commit crimes rather than locking them up.

Mr. Nadelmann wants to enlist such people in his cause of
repealing all penalties for drug use. "What we reformers do is to
use these coalitions on one issue to educate our allies about the
broader implications of the drug war," he said.

Rob Stewart, a senior policy analyst for the Drug Policy Foundation, another group in Washington supported by Mr.
Soros, said that lifting criminal penalties for marijuana use would
be sufficient. Writing in the group's newsletter, he explained,
"decriminalization makes the point that adults should not be
arrested for using marijuana as they would use a martini."

Mr. Stewart described the Drug Policy Foundation as "agnostic"
about other illicit drugs. But its founder, Arnold S. Trebach, told
journalists in 1997 that everything from cocaine and heroin to
steroids should be freely available.

Mr. Nadelmann objects to stigmatizing recreational drug use.
"People shall not be discriminated against based on the substances they consume," he said. "The extension of the notion of equality is going to have to include drug users."

The American Civil Liberties Union also endorses the right to
consume drugs. Ira Glasser, its director, said this year, "The
A.C.L.U.'s position is basically that criminal prohibition is
inappropriate in matters that involve a person's own behavior."

Mr. Glasser is also chairman of the Drug Policy Foundation.
Holding both posts, he said, poses no conflict of interest.

Mr. Nadelmann said that a fresh initiative on medicinal marijuana would be voted on next year in Colorado, where an earlier referendum was declared illegal, and in Nevada, where the proposal must be approved twice. Other states that have passed such initiatives, he said, would be encouraged to get involved in producing and distributing marijuana for medicinal purposes.


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